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Private school enrollment shows sharp decline in California

Much of the drop is attributed to significant reductions in the number of students attending religious schools.

The number of California students enrolled in private schools has fallen by nearly 25 percent since 2000—dragged down by a significant drop in the number of students attending religious schools.

The Sacramento Bee reports that about 479,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade attended private schools during 2018-19, compared with about 536,000 a decade prior and 637,000 in 2000, according to the California Department of Education.

The number of students in secular private schools – roughly 130,000 – has remained fairly steady since 2000. Religious schools have taken the biggest hits. The number of students enrolled in religious schools in California has dropped from about 506,000 in 2000 to about 339,000 during the last school year.

Private schools have seen increased competition from charter schools and new suburban public schools. Many lost a lot of students during the recession and have struggled to bounce back.

At the same time, the proportion of Californians who adhere to a religious faith has fallen, and sex abuse scandals have hurt the reputation of Catholic schools, in particular.

Almost half of the state’s private school enrollment declines occurred in Los Angeles County, which dropped about 73,000 private school students, a decline of roughly 33 percent.

Two wealthy counties – Marin and Santa Clara – saw an increase in private school students from 2000 to 2019. The California Department of Education data is drawn from affidavits filed by private schools with more than six students.

The U.S. Census Bureau also collects data on private school enrollment. That data shows the same trend – a decline in private school enrollment over the last 20 years - though the drop is not quite as steep as shown in state figures.

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